Why we are having the wrong debate on Afghanistan

Why is it that we continue to see the Afghanistan mission through the lens of peacekeeping, as opposed to peacebuilding? This fact seems to underlie and shape the entire debate – forcing us to ask the wrong questions and driving all our political parties to poorly thought out solutions.

Take, for example, the new Liberal position that insists on a non-combat role. As Rosie Dimanno points out in a recent Toronto Star article the number of Canadian troops killed in combat in Afghanistan last year was 0. 12 were killed by improvised explosive and 11 by roadside bombs and land mines. In addition there have been deaths from accidents. But there has not been a single combat death since Sept 3. 2006. One is forced to ask… why insist on a non-combat role? It is because this is what we’d like the mission to entail? Or because this is what the mission does entail. Although we may wish it, we are not peacekeeping. Our troops are not positioning themselves between enemy combatants in an effort to prevent them from fighting. This is peacebuilding – we are one of the combatants and we should not pretend otherwise.

The risks of pretending we are peacekeeping however, are significant. As she points out:

If Liberals are trying to spare Canadian lives – by venturing passively, ducking into calmer territory and promoting reconstruction in the absence of a secure environment – an anti-combat insistence is utterly without merit.

But it might get Canadian troops killed. An enemy that knows troops won’t fight back, can’t fight back because of political handcuffs slapped on half a world away, is an enemy given a blood-embossed invitation to attack at will.

Her article may be alarmist, but its central argument is correct. As General Lewis Mackenzie confirms, denying our troops the capacity to take advanced actions to protect themselves – or the NGO’s and aid workers attempting to rebuild Afghanistan – is sheer folly. Our polticians owe it to both the public and our military to be honest about what this mission requires of us.

Which brings us to a second distortion. In a peacekeeping mission one would want to know other countries are participating. A broader coalition means more countries are fostering international pressure to end the conflict and bring their peacekeepers home. Again, however, we are not in a peacekeeping mission. Either we believe an unstable Afghanistan is a threat to our national interest or we don’t. If it is a threat, why does it matter what our NATO allies think? Did we, prior to the second world war, wait to see who else signed up before committing to action? Of course not. The cause was important enough for us to commit ourselves. Nor, after 1943, did we say “we’ve done our part, time for someone else to step up.”And yet this is precisely how we are presently framing the issue.

As a result our national debate over Afghanistan actually undermines our efforts to solicit support. Our politicians end up treating Afghanistan as a duty – something, like peacekeeping, we do to maintain for humanitarian reasons, or to buttress our reputation within NATO or the United States. Not once in the last few months has Afghanistan been described as an imperative. But few, if any countries, are willing to put their soldiers in harms way out of a vague sense of obligation to an international body. Countries – and Canada should be among this list – should put their soldiers in harms way with enourmous trepidation, and usually only when they believe vital national interests are at stake. By telling our allies “it’s someone else’s turn” we risk conveying that we really don’t believe this mission is vital. If it were, we’d be asking them to work along side us, not replace us.

At present, it appears the majority of our allies don’t believe a stable Afghanistan is essential to global peace and security. This is either because it isn’t, or because we’ve failed to convince them. This is a difficult assessment to make and I’d be foolish to claim that I know the answer with complete certainty. That said, I suspect – as Paul Wells points out – our diplomat efforts to make the case have been weak at best.

Canada must decide for itself if we think a stable Afghanistan is critical to the stability of the international system and thus, in turn, our national interest. Sadly, I’ve heard little of this in the discussion among the political parties. And yet addressing this underlying question would not only be the more honest approach, it might cause the “are we in” or “are we out” debate to simply disappear.

19 thoughts on “Why we are having the wrong debate on Afghanistan

  1. The Grumpy Voter

    Both the Liberals and Tories have handled the Afghanistan question abysmally. What’s worse, we’ve never really had a national debate on this mission and as I’ve blogged about, we need one – badly. We owe it to our troops to ensure that our electorate knows why they’re there and what the outcomes are intended to be. I still believe the only way to do this is to have an election on our role in Afghanistan because I think most Canadians are ill informed due to the fact that we’ve never really had that all important debate.

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  2. The Grumpy Voter

    Both the Liberals and Tories have handled the Afghanistan question abysmally. What’s worse, we’ve never really had a national debate on this mission and as I’ve blogged about, we need one – badly. We owe it to our troops to ensure that our electorate knows why they’re there and what the outcomes are intended to be. I still believe the only way to do this is to have an election on our role in Afghanistan because I think most Canadians are ill informed due to the fact that we’ve never really had that all important debate.

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  3. Scott Tribe

    It seems David, you’re in the Manley wing of the Liberal Party – the hawks as it were.

    Well David, I for one don’t think wanting a rotation of us in and others to replace us is saying ‘the mission is not vital’. That’s pure nonsense. What we who support that position are saying is that Canada has been shouldering the burden far too long, and it’s time some of the other allies in Nato who issue plaudits about how important the mission in Afghanistan is, while at the same time, either refusing to put soldiers in Afghanistan, or refusing to move them south in the danger zones put their money where their mouth is. Otherwise David, we’re going to be at the mercy of NATO saying there is no help, and we’ll be doing extension after extension if we have a hawkish government like Harper or allow hawkish elements of the Liberals (like you apparently) to keep arguing we can’t abandon these people.

    You’re sounding distressingly like the neo-cons in the US arguing the same thing over Iraq. Let’s stay 100 years if necessary, thunders John McCain. Well, I think you’ll find the Canadian people are going to say that enough is enough. If the rest of NATO doesn’t want to be involved, we’ve done our part, MORE then our part with 1 extension already on this mission. If NATO or its member countries can’t find the will to show their commitment to Afghanistan, then that’s on their heads, not Canada’s.

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  4. Scott Tribe

    It seems David, you’re in the Manley wing of the Liberal Party – the hawks as it were.Well David, I for one don’t think wanting a rotation of us in and others to replace us is saying ‘the mission is not vital’. That’s pure nonsense. What we who support that position are saying is that Canada has been shouldering the burden far too long, and it’s time some of the other allies in Nato who issue plaudits about how important the mission in Afghanistan is, while at the same time, either refusing to put soldiers in Afghanistan, or refusing to move them south in the danger zones put their money where their mouth is. Otherwise David, we’re going to be at the mercy of NATO saying there is no help, and we’ll be doing extension after extension if we have a hawkish government like Harper or allow hawkish elements of the Liberals (like you apparently) to keep arguing we can’t abandon these people.You’re sounding distressingly like the neo-cons in the US arguing the same thing over Iraq. Let’s stay 100 years if necessary, thunders John McCain. Well, I think you’ll find the Canadian people are going to say that enough is enough. If the rest of NATO doesn’t want to be involved, we’ve done our part, MORE then our part with 1 extension already on this mission. If NATO or its member countries can’t find the will to show their commitment to Afghanistan, then that’s on their heads, not Canada’s.

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  5. scott ross

    You know what also this Afghanistan mission isn’t? A puppy.

    Yup, definitly not a puppy.

    So it’s not a peacekeeping mission and it’s not a puppy.

    Though it may be debatable someone called our Afghan mission a puppy, no one ever called Afghanistan a Peacekeeping mission, Liberal or Cons or NDP.

    So why don’t you write a post about the Afghan mission not being a puppy?

    I’m against the mission not because of the combat role, but because its a wrong mission.

    Its wrong the Taliban should never have been toppled. Sure they were a horrible and cruel government, but that’s not why they were toppled, so that can’t be an excuse. They were toppled purely because they didn’t hand over terrorists. Even though they wanted to negotiate with Bush but were completely ignored.

    Currently we’ve been in Afghanistan longer then the Taliban were in power and have caused more civilan deaths, more Afghan refugees, and created a less stable government.

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  6. scott ross

    You know what also this Afghanistan mission isn’t? A puppy. Yup, definitly not a puppy. So it’s not a peacekeeping mission and it’s not a puppy. Though it may be debatable someone called our Afghan mission a puppy, no one ever called Afghanistan a Peacekeeping mission, Liberal or Cons or NDP. So why don’t you write a post about the Afghan mission not being a puppy?I’m against the mission not because of the combat role, but because its a wrong mission. Its wrong the Taliban should never have been toppled. Sure they were a horrible and cruel government, but that’s not why they were toppled, so that can’t be an excuse. They were toppled purely because they didn’t hand over terrorists. Even though they wanted to negotiate with Bush but were completely ignored. Currently we’ve been in Afghanistan longer then the Taliban were in power and have caused more civilan deaths, more Afghan refugees, and created a less stable government.

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  7. In_the_centre

    Even though they wanted to negotiate with Bush but were completely ignored.

    Do you have a valid source for this prior to 9/11?

    FYI, this is not the position of just so called hawks. You will find that a majority of the NGO community across Canada (ie. The Red Cross) understand the need for the military to take an active role so they can do their stuff safely.

    Canada must decide for itself if we think a stable Afghanistan is critical to the stability of the international system and thus, in turn, our national interest

    Absolutely critical. I cannot agree more with this statement. There are people like me who believe that the source of instability in the world primarily stems from the existence of lawless, failed states.

    The debate should be about how we as a country deal with failed states, and Afghanistan should serve as the context for our future role in any future intervention.

    I think NATO was onside with thinking until the US intervened in Iraq (which by the way, was not a failed state). Unfortunately, that intervention threw anti-US feelings into the mix.

    Peacekeeping is dead because the number of states that go to war with each other has substantially decreased heading into the 21st century (except perhaps in Africa).

    We need to decide whether we as a nation have the capacity to take on non-state actors (militarily and non-militarily) who cause many of the problems today

    And thankfully, we have some educated Liberal MP’s who understand the big picture that prevent the knee-jerk reactions of both the NDP, the CPC and some in the Liberal party

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  8. In_the_centre

    Even though they wanted to negotiate with Bush but were completely ignored. Do you have a valid source for this prior to 9/11?FYI, this is not the position of just so called hawks. You will find that a majority of the NGO community across Canada (ie. The Red Cross) understand the need for the military to take an active role so they can do their stuff safely.Canada must decide for itself if we think a stable Afghanistan is critical to the stability of the international system and thus, in turn, our national interestAbsolutely critical. I cannot agree more with this statement. There are people like me who believe that the source of instability in the world primarily stems from the existence of lawless, failed states.The debate should be about how we as a country deal with failed states, and Afghanistan should serve as the context for our future role in any future intervention.I think NATO was onside with thinking until the US intervened in Iraq (which by the way, was not a failed state). Unfortunately, that intervention threw anti-US feelings into the mix.Peacekeeping is dead because the number of states that go to war with each other has substantially decreased heading into the 21st century (except perhaps in Africa).We need to decide whether we as a nation have the capacity to take on non-state actors (militarily and non-militarily) who cause many of the problems todayAnd thankfully, we have some educated Liberal MP’s who understand the big picture that prevent the knee-jerk reactions of both the NDP, the CPC and some in the Liberal party

    Reply
  9. Red Tory

    Both the Liberals and the Conservatives have the wrong position on Afghanistan (just variations on the same theme, really), so it’s a little difficult to see what would be resolved by a “national debate” if by that you mean an election. None of the NATO countries seem to have the slightest clue what they’re doing in Afghanistan and their efforts at “nation-building” have thusfar been a miserable failure for the most part. In fact, the country just slipped another notch down on the UN’s Global Human Development Index (to 174 out of 178 countries). It’s laughable to contend that have a stable Afghanistan is critical to global security when neighboring Pakistan provides safe haven for the forces we are combating and is itself on the brink of total chaos. It would have been preferable if the Liberals had taken the position of pulling the plug on this neo-conservative misadventure at the end of the year.

    Reply
  10. Red Tory

    Both the Liberals and the Conservatives have the wrong position on Afghanistan (just variations on the same theme, really), so it’s a little difficult to see what would be resolved by a “national debate” if by that you mean an election. None of the NATO countries seem to have the slightest clue what they’re doing in Afghanistan and their efforts at “nation-building” have thusfar been a miserable failure for the most part. In fact, the country just slipped another notch down on the UN’s Global Human Development Index (to 174 out of 178 countries). It’s laughable to contend that have a stable Afghanistan is critical to global security when neighboring Pakistan provides safe haven for the forces we are combating and is itself on the brink of total chaos. It would have been preferable if the Liberals had taken the position of pulling the plug on this neo-conservative misadventure at the end of the year.

    Reply
  11. In_the_centre

    Unfortunately, that intervention threw anti-US feelings into the mix.

    neo-conservative misadventure

    It’s laughable to contend that have a stable Afghanistan is critical to global security when neighboring Pakistan provides safe haven for the forces we are combating and is itself on the brink of total chaos.

    They are both critical to global security…and both have to be looked at together for a comprehensive solution.

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  12. In_the_centre

    Unfortunately, that intervention threw anti-US feelings into the mix.neo-conservative misadventure It’s laughable to contend that have a stable Afghanistan is critical to global security when neighboring Pakistan provides safe haven for the forces we are combating and is itself on the brink of total chaos.They are both critical to global security…and both have to be looked at together for a comprehensive solution.

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  13. Danistan

    Dave, I find it hard to disagree, but lump me in with those who do not necessarily expect very much from our elected officials on such issues of national importance.

    Granted, politicians must always be watchful of the political impact of their decisions, but in recent years it certainly seems as if decisions of war and peace have served for little more than political one-upmanship. Whether it was Jean Chrétien announcing that Canada would not participate in the U.S. invasion of Iraq or Stephen Harper putting a motion before the House of Commons designed to lay bare Liberal faultlines concerning Canada’s mission to Afghanistan, our leaders have never hesitated to reap what political advantage they can and worry about having a proper debate on the issues later, if at all.

    I will admit I was hopeful about the Manley commission and report and the possibilities that existed once it was made public. Leave it to Parliament to revert to what they’re used to: monosyllabic catfighting.

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  14. Danistan

    Dave, I find it hard to disagree, but lump me in with those who do not necessarily expect very much from our elected officials on such issues of national importance.Granted, politicians must always be watchful of the political impact of their decisions, but in recent years it certainly seems as if decisions of war and peace have served for little more than political one-upmanship. Whether it was Jean Chrétien announcing that Canada would not participate in the U.S. invasion of Iraq or Stephen Harper putting a motion before the House of Commons designed to lay bare Liberal faultlines concerning Canada’s mission to Afghanistan, our leaders have never hesitated to reap what political advantage they can and worry about having a proper debate on the issues later, if at all.I will admit I was hopeful about the Manley commission and report and the possibilities that existed once it was made public. Leave it to Parliament to revert to what they’re used to: monosyllabic catfighting.

    Reply
  15. Brenton

    I realise that some voters (and the NDP, for a short time) need to to feel that our mission in Afghanistan is in our national interests, but that’s a load of bollocks. Pakistan is destabilizing the region, not Afghanistan. Maybe, just maybe, there is some really indirect effects on Canada’s security. We are there for humanitarian reasons. The mission should be judged on those grounds, not whether or not it is making the world safer for Canadians. It is up to our elected officials to make that case to Canadians. I am shocked that a reader above thinks that the Taliban should still be in power. Brutal. But that’s what will happen if we leave the south with no replacements. Good points re: the Liberal position.

    This is just an issue of semantics, but the UN has a Peacebuilding Commission, and it has nothing to do with active military missions that you advocate. The SFU School for International Studies (who knew they had one?) hosted a talk with the Canadian that is heading the commission, very interesting.

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  16. Brenton

    I realise that some voters (and the NDP, for a short time) need to to feel that our mission in Afghanistan is in our national interests, but that’s a load of bollocks. Pakistan is destabilizing the region, not Afghanistan. Maybe, just maybe, there is some really indirect effects on Canada’s security. We are there for humanitarian reasons. The mission should be judged on those grounds, not whether or not it is making the world safer for Canadians. It is up to our elected officials to make that case to Canadians. I am shocked that a reader above thinks that the Taliban should still be in power. Brutal. But that’s what will happen if we leave the south with no replacements. Good points re: the Liberal position.This is just an issue of semantics, but the UN has a Peacebuilding Commission, and it has nothing to do with active military missions that you advocate. The SFU School for International Studies (who knew they had one?) hosted a talk with the Canadian that is heading the commission, very interesting.

    Reply
  17. Patrick Ross

    I think most of the peacekeeping missions of the past 15 years reveals the risk of even conceptualizing peacekeeping and peacebuilding as different acts.

    What we saw in the Balkans, in Rwanda, in Somalia — in particular — is that most missions we would otherwise like to think of as peacekeeping are in fact combat missions.

    Michael Ignatieff certainly seems to think so.

    Sometimes, however, we can find ourselves even differentiating between peacekeepers (who engage in peacekeeping, clearly) and soldiers (who fight in wars).

    On occasion, I even catch myself doing it. It’s essentially become a cultural mythos surrounding Canada’s military role that really has become predominant at a fundamental level.

    Maybe we just aren’t being honest with ourselves in this regard any more.

    Reply
  18. Patrick Ross

    I think most of the peacekeeping missions of the past 15 years reveals the risk of even conceptualizing peacekeeping and peacebuilding as different acts.What we saw in the Balkans, in Rwanda, in Somalia — in particular — is that most missions we would otherwise like to think of as peacekeeping are in fact combat missions.Michael Ignatieff certainly seems to think so.Sometimes, however, we can find ourselves even differentiating between peacekeepers (who engage in peacekeeping, clearly) and soldiers (who fight in wars).On occasion, I even catch myself doing it. It’s essentially become a cultural mythos surrounding Canada’s military role that really has become predominant at a fundamental level.Maybe we just aren’t being honest with ourselves in this regard any more.

    Reply
  19. Pingback: Afghanistan: Tears are not enough, but neither are troops | eaves.ca

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